Sir James Mansfield was no conventional lawyer drawing a clientèle from the aristocracy and the flower of the professions. In his sixty-fifth year, he had served two terms as Solicitor General for the Crown and was on his way to becoming Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the capacity in which John Wilmot’s father had aggrandised himself. There were few higher offices in the land.
No stranger to the convolutions of the human mind, Sir James confessed himself baffled by a new case which had been brought to his attention by a reverend gentleman, one Caleb Carrington. The cleric had written to him in concise terms, if a little sycophantically, outlining the perplexities of an unnamed Earl who was unable to establish his marriage in 1785 because no record could be found. The writer presumed upon the goodness of the barrister to forgive the concealment of identity and hoped he would be agreeable to a consultation with the Countess at his chambers. Clearly, the lady was confident that she would not be recognised!
Sir James was filled with a quiet exasperation. He reminded himself that the law was a theoretical and abstract discipline that had to be translated into practical application and was moved to allot some time to an interview.
She entered the room with an understated but well-grounded presence and offered him a gloved hand. “Sir James, thank you for seeing me. Your time is precious, I am sure,” she said in a way which rather suggested that hers was, too. Her figure fitted her elegant black garments trimly, a veil over her bonnet keeping her features in shadow. Perhaps she was hiding eyes swollen by tears of mourning, or a complexion pock-marked by disease.
“I beg your ladyship will take a seat,” he said, indicating an all-embracing wing chair. He re-situated the oil lamp upon his desk the better to gauge the creature under the veil. She was no middling charmer, he could tell. The cheekbones were classically high, the nose straight, the chin delicate and the ample mouth contoured by humour rather than pessimism. The voice had a rich timbre and a hint of a West Country burr.
“You have, I believe, been primed as to the purpose of my visit,” said she. She was tugging off her gloves gracefully, finger by finger.
“I have, ma’am.” Mansfield surveyed the letter before him written in Carrington’s methodical script. “First, let me assure you that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be able to help you, but this is a most unusual case.”
“That I understand, sir. If you could venture an opinion....”
He leaned back in his chair and made a steeple of his fingers. “It will be easier if I speak by hypothesis…. A marriage is not void for want of registration, if there be no other objection to it; but it is void if it was not performed in a Parish Church, or if there performed without Banns, or a licence, either being necessary to make a marriage valid.”
“All the formalities were complied with, I declare.”
“That being so, the witness now surviving may be sufficient to prove it.”
“The problem is, Sir James, that the only living witness is my brother and in a situation which, as you say, is unusual, he could be deemed to be partial. My husband and I have considered the prudence and propriety of a second marriage. That would not be an illegal step, I believe?”
“There is nothing to prevent anyone marrying the same person as many times as he chooses, but in the instance you cite, I am inclined to feel that a second marriage might indeed cast doubt upon the existence of the first.”
At this, the Countess showed signs of agitation. She fiddled with the chain upon her embroidered purse. “Oh dear! What have we done...? I am afraid it has already taken place...!”
“Calm yourself, dear lady, I beg. May I offer you a dish of tea? A nip of brandy?”
“A glass of water, if you please.”
Mansfield rang the bell for his clerk and gave instructions. “That being the case, we must hope and pray that the earlier documentation is found. I take it that every chest, shelf, drawer and crevice have been scoured?”
“In the ordinary way, yes. There are the late Mr Hupsman’s papers.”
“Have you, I wonder, made enquiry of the Diocesan Office? They will have copies of the Parish Registers covering the year in question.”
“Oh, I do not know! I only wish I did! I think it cannot be so, for his lordship was most anxious at that period, for personal reasons, to keep the matter quiet.”
“Yes, I see. If he wishes to confer with me in the strictest confidence, my lady, I should be happy to oblige. Opinions given in the absence of a rounded picture can lead to error.”
The clerk came in with a glass of water on a tray and set it down with a tentative bow. The Countess smiled gratefully and consented to lift her veil. Mansfield’s expression was of one tantalised by dim recollection. After taking a sip, she said: “The Earl – my husband – is of the belief that if statements are signed where the Baptisms of our children born before the second marriage have been recorded, it will help to preserve the testimony of any witness.”
“When was that marriage?”
“Three years ago.”
“So it took place prior to the death of the clergyman you were protecting.”
“Yes, it did. It was for our own peace of mind.”
A long sigh underscored Mansfield’s thoughts. “It seems to me that filing a Bill, or making a Declaration, can be of little use, though it cannot, I think, do any harm and, if made, it should express not only the fact of the first marriage, but why it was supposed not to be valid. The same sort of Declaration should be made where the baptism of the children born since the second marriage is entered, in order to explain the differences.”
The Countess took another sip of water, flicked down her veil and drew on her gloves with a flexure of the hand. “I will make representations to my husband, Sir James.”
“Do so, ma’am. It can only help if I discuss it with him. Concerns entailing inheritance can be notoriously fickle and riddled with idiosyncrasy.”
Sir James glanced at the portrait of the late Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Eardley Wilmot, who had been unable to make good an entitlement to his deceased brother’s estates.
“I can see that a second ceremony was ill-advised,” the client concluded as she made to leave. Her tone was uptight and breathless, close to tears.
While the lawyer’s instinct was to deal out consoling phrases, he nursed strong reservations about this case. It did not hang together as it ought. “I will look forward to speaking with his lordship.” He was guiding the Countess towards the door, when she turned to him, her frustration vented in dire distress.
“I will do all in my power to obtain justice for my eldest son. He is his father’s true heir. It would be a terrible thing to go to my grave knowing that I had failed him.”
She swept through the outer office stacked high with its scrolls and ledgers testifying to tradition as a foursquare foundation of society, past the row of clerks bent over their correspondence, and down the stairs. Muffled sobs echoed up the stairwell. Startled, Bunduck, the waistcoated clerk who had provided the glass of water, looked up. “Not your average customer, that lady, Sir James.”
Mansfield’s gaze was slanted down upon the pavement below. He watched her tripping, almost running across the road in the thick of traffic, to where a carriage awaited in a side street. It was tawny yellow and black. An allusion Lysons had made chimed in his head. (Lysons was a prize quidnunc, one seldom heard above half he said.)
He turned away to find the intrigued clerk hovering close behind him with only a feather between their faces. “Back to your station, Bunduck. And mark this: A goose-quill is more dangerous than a lion’s claw!”
THE WOLF AND THE LAMB, Book One of the Berkeley Trilogy
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